Quality continues to be the key for keeping U.S. cotton competitive in a global market and anything the industry can do to develop better varieties and better production techniques that reduce broken fibers, minimize neps and avoid contamination will increase potential for market share, says Michael Watson, vice-president of fiber competition for Cotton Incorporated.
Watson, speaking at the Texas Plant Protection Association annual meeting in College Station, said changes in the textile industry makes fiber quality even more important.
“The domestic cotton industry used to be our best customer,” Watson said. “Massive changes in the U.S. textile industry” have reversed that trend, especially in the last five years. “Textile operations are closed or closing." Similar changes have occurred in other one-time strong textile manufacturing countries, including in Europe. “No textile industry is left in Europe. Japan has declined, and Taiwan and Korea also have problems.”
Labor is the catalyst. “Textiles need cheap labor,” Watson said. “The U.S. spinning industry is as efficient as any in the world, but we still can’t compete.”
He said in 1997 the domestic textile industry used 11.3 million bales of U.S. cotton and exported 7.5 million. In 2008, domestic use had plunged to 3.6 million bales and export increased to 13.3 million.
“China used more U.S. cotton than the United States did,” Watson said. China, at 4 million bales, is the best customer for U.S. cotton. The United States is second at 3.4 million. Turkey is next with 1.8 million, followed by Mexico at 1.3 million, Indonesia at 1 million, and Vietnam at 0.8 million.
He said China is working to “move up the market, away from cheap fabric and boosting the quality of their (textile) goods. Production of cheaper goods likely will move into India and Vietnam.”
He said China wanted higher quality cotton and pointed out that one region, a major textile manufacturing area, uses approximately 4 million bales of cotton per year, “more than the entire U.S. textile industry.”
He said the Chinese government is financing bale presses for “reformed” gins. “They have 5,000 in China.”
Quality of U.S. cotton concerns Chinese and other foreign buyers, Watson said. “Complaints about neps, defects in fabrics, come from Turkey. They have 10 spinning mills and every one of them complains about neps. U.S. cotton always has more neps compared to hand-harvested cotton.” U.S. cotton typically has an 11 percent neps content, he said.
But the biggest competitor for U.S. cotton, Watson said, is synthetic fabric. “Their advantage is that it takes less acreage to produce (synthetic fabrics) than cotton. No plants are left in the United States, but are set up in Asia and they are in the labs trying to develop more cotton-like fabrics. They get closer every year so we can’t let up on quality.”
Watson said competing cotton producing companies are growing less short fiber cotton. “The United States is heading in the wrong direction with length uniformity index (LUI). New varieties will help, but success will take a systems approach with harvest and ginning.”
He said U.S. cotton does well in China on strength but not with LUI. “We need varieties with better maturity and better LUI. We also need to look at how often we touch a bale of cotton. It’s as much as 18 times and every time we touch a bale we leave money on the ground.”